Another world

Its remoteness is an obstacle well worth overcoming.

Remote, vast and occasionally intimidating, the Pilbara is one of Australia’s least visited regions and yet for the adventurous traveller it brings spectacular rewards.

Start off in Exmouth, where orange earth meets sapphire ocean encrusted with fringing reefs

If they weren’t so remote, the national parks in this corner of Western Australia would be famous. Gorges millions of years old cleave rust-red landscapes and rocks are imprinted with the continent’s richest collection of Aboriginal rock art. European pioneer history is haunting, yet the Pilbara is also the powerhouse of the modern Australian economy. You can travel not just through magnificent scenery but 50,000 years of human history.

Start off in Exmouth, where orange earth meets sapphire ocean encrusted with fringing reefs. You’ll have to turn your back on coastal attractions though, and head inland to Nanutarra Roadhouse. From here Warlu Way (and later the Manuwarra Highway) follow the dreaming tracks of several Indigenous groups through astounding geology before finding the coast again at Karratha. Count on a week to properly appreciate the 1300-kilometre route.

Tom Price, the gateway to Karijini National Park deep in the outback, is where the drama begins. Here the ancient Hamersley Ranges crumble into massive gorges banded with coloured iron and marble. 

Dales Gorge is your first encounter. Like a slice of the tropics in the vast aridity of the Hamersley Ranges, its pools are fringed by ferns and gum trees. Bring your swimmers – Fortescue Falls provides a refreshing if surprisingly chilly reward for the dusty drive.

Karijini Visitor Centre, housed in a striking building resembling a goanna, is hard to miss. Excellent interactive displays explain the geology of the gorges and outline the history of the Banyjima people, who have managed this environment for 40,000 years. Banyjima park guides will take the fit and adventurous into Red Gorge and Hancock Gorge for hikes that on occasion require you to inch along rock ledges and clamber down ladders.

More sedate walkers can head to Weano Gorge, where fern-lined waterfalls tumble over ink-black and rust-red rock. Elsewhere, the indolent need barely step out of their car. At Oxer Lookout, several gorges converge in a huge tangle of rock faces set on fire at sunset. If it weren’t so middle-of-nowhere, this would be one of Australia’s most celebrated views. 

The vastness of this area needs to be seen to be believed

These landscapes aren’t as hostile as they seem, however – in winter, northern bluebells and yellow wattles bloom

Driving north takes you on to Millstream-Chichester National Park, where red kangaroos bounce between strange trees whose leaves hang down in long, grey hanks. The landscape changes. Layers of colour-banded hills are eroded into flat-topped escarpments that look like sandcastles, and dry watercourses claw through plains studded with spinifex.

These landscapes aren’t as hostile as they seem, however. In winter, northern bluebells and yellow wattles bloom. Oases of paperbarks hunker in the cracked gorges of the Chichester Ranges and, along the Fortescue River, flying foxes flap and palm trees cast welcome shade. Python Pool is a cooling waterhole overlooked by rearing red cliffs. In the gum trees above, little corellas with blue eye-patches cock their heads to watch you swim.

It’s along the Fortescue River that the Warlu serpent – which gives the Warlu Way its name – devoured two boys as punishment for eating a sacred mulga parrot, according to an ancient Yindjibarndi morality tale about following traditional custom. The homestead at Millstream Station brings you other tales of remote 1930s settler life.

Along the Fortescue River, signboards relate how native plants are used in Indigenous food and medicine. A couple of hours up the road in Karratha you can follow the Jaburara Heritage Trail through teetering rock piles and creeks lined by coolabah trees, and find rock art associated with the flying-fox dreaming.

The Burrup Peninsula north of Karratha is splattered with thousands of Aboriginal sites, including the earliest examples of art in Australia, depicting animal tracks, people and wildlife. Yet the millennia are quick to catch up – Karratha is undergoing an iron-ore boom, and nearby mining centre Dampier is one of Australia’s busiest ports.

Dampier’s gigantic port facilities make you feel like a Lilliputian. Call in at the North West Shelf Project Visitors Centre to learn about the gas project so crucial to our economy. From here you can overlook the gas-storage facilities, winking like a set from a science-fiction movie. At night, the industrial works throw up an eerie glow.

Dampier’s gigantic port facilities make you feel like a Lilliputian

The Pilbara has a way of making everything seem inconsequential – its landscapes reduce you to insignificance

The contemporary, industrial side of the Pilbara is as startling as its landscapes. To see what makes Australia tick, head 240 kilometres west to finish in Port Hedland, a remarkable Mad Max set of looming salt hills, gas plants, gargantuan machines and kilometres-long iron-ore trains. Massive ships sail into the harbour at the end of Port Hedland’s residential streets.

Will gas-processing plants still be around in 40,000 years as evidence of our modern society’s endeavours? Unlikely. The Pilbara has a way of making everything seem inconsequential. Its landscapes reduce you to insignificance and, two steps beyond its few towns, the silence is interrupted except only by the hum of insects and cackle of cockatoos.

You might sometimes be overawed or intimidated, but you’ll be inspired too. The colours in Pilbara landscapes are incredible – red rock and golden spinifex against a clear blue sky and views uninterrupted for miles. As the sun sets over gorges, its fire produces scarlets and mauves, shadowed by cliffs and trees.

At night, you only need turn off the car’s engine, switch off the radio and look up at the confetti of outback stars. In the Pilbara, you start with a dusty road and gain the universe.